Reflections on the representativeness of citizens’ assemblies and similar innovations

Article by Paolo Spada and Tiago C. Peixoto: “For proponents of deliberative democracy, the last couple of years could not have been better. Propelled by the recent diffusion of citizens’ assemblies, deliberative democracy has definitely gained popularity beyond small circles of scholars and advocates. From CNN to the New York Times, the Hindustan Times (India), Folha de São Paulo (Brazil), and Expresso (Portugal), it is now almost difficult to keep up with all the interest in democratic models that promote the random selection of participants who engage in informed deliberation. A new “deliberative wave” is definitely here.

But with popularity comes scrutiny. And whether the deliberative wave will power new energy or crash onto the beach, is an open question. As is the case with any democratic innovation (institutions designed to improve or deepen our existing democratic systems), critically examining assumptions is what allows for management of expectations and, most importantly, gradual improvements.

Proponents of citizens’ assemblies put representativeness at the core of their definition. In fact, it is one of their main selling points. For example, a comprehensive report highlights that an advantage of citizens’ assemblies, compared to other mechanisms of participatory democracy, is their typical combination of random selection and stratification to form a public body that is “representative of the public.” This general argument resonates with the media and the wider public. A recent illustration is an article by The Guardian, which depicts citizens’ assemblies as “a group of people who are randomly selected and reflect the demographics of the population as a whole”

It should be noted that claims of representativeness vary in their assertiveness. For instance, some may refer to citizens’ assemblies as “representative deliberative democracy,” while others may use more cautious language, referring to assemblies’ participants as being “broadly representative” of the population (e.g. by gender, age, education, attitudes). This variation in terms used to describe representativeness should prompt an attentive observer to ask basic questions such as: “Are existing practices of deliberative democracy representative?” “If they are ‘broadly’ representative, how representative are they?” “What criteria, if any, are used to assess whether a deliberative democracy practice is more or less representative of the population?” “Can their representativeness be improved, and if so, how?” These are basic questions that, surprisingly, have been given little attention in recent debates surrounding deliberative democracy. The purpose of this article is to bring attention to these basic questions and to provide initial answers and potential avenues for future research and practice…(More)”.